By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
The US is reluctant to claim victory as bomb attacks continue
On his latest visit to Iraq, the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates arrived to the explosion of a suicide car bomb in a village near Balad, 75km (47 miles) north of Baghdad, which left more than 30 Iraqis dead.
As he was preparing to leave a day later, central Baghdad was shaken by two car bomb blasts in quick succession. Eleven people were killed as the explosives went off near a queue of people waiting to buy petrol.
In both instances, and in another attack by militants in the far north-west of the country on Sunday in which 15 people were reported killed, the targets were believed to be local Iraqis who had turned against al-Qaeda and its allies and joined the US and Iraqi government forces in fighting them.
While nobody contests the US assertion that the security situation has improved a great deal, it is clearly neither perfect, universal nor irreversible.
Robert Gates wants troops held at pre-surge levels for now
This is why Mr Gates signalled during his Baghdad visit that he favoured the idea that US troops should be held at pre-surge levels - about 130,000 - for a period of "consolidation and evaluation", once the surge ends in July.
Attacks are still happening in Baghdad, although controlling the city has been the main focus of the year-old "surge" in US troop levels.
Areas to the north and south of the capital are still the scene of a months-long struggle to dislodge the Sunni militants of al-Qaeda and allied factions.
Many of them are also believed to have moved up to Mosul and other locations in the far north, where another major campaign is looming.
So US commanders and diplomats alike shy away from claiming victory over the militants, while asserting that they have dealt them a major blow.
US commanders are reluctant to allow the backward momentum of the reverse-surge process to merge seamlessly into a wholesale withdrawal of American forces
Speaking at a medal ceremony, Mr Gates praised US troops for "routing" al-Qaeda. But he admitted that the situation remained fragile.
To back up their assertion that al-Qaeda is reeling, US forces have released extracts from internal reports they say they found at militant hideouts.
In them, senior al-Qaeda operatives purportedly complain that they have suffered a huge loss of support from within the Iraqi Sunni community as the result of tribes turning against them in the western al-Anbar province and elsewhere.
The documents have not been independently scrutinised, but their upshot concurs with an objective assessment of the setbacks the radical Islamists have faced as former allies join the Americans and the government against them in many Sunni areas.
US and Iraqi officials also saw as a sign of al-Qaeda's desperation the double suicide bombing at Friday markets in Baghdad on 1 February, which they say was carried out by mentally-handicapped women taken from a care home.
Nonetheless, US officials are far from writing al-Qaeda off as a spent force.
US military action must work along with a "hearts and minds" policy
They know that it, and on the Shia side elements of the Mehdi Army militia, are both hoping US troops will start disappearing soon, so the militants on both sides can restore their grip in areas they once controlled.
That is why US commanders are reluctant to allow the backward momentum of the reverse-surge process to merge seamlessly into a wholesale withdrawal of American forces.
They fear that would risk squandering the undoubted but incomplete gains they have made.
They also know from many short-lived successes and failed security plans in the past that military action alone is not enough to win the war.
Hence the elevation of the "hearts and minds" element from a poor and often forgotten third place, to a central position in the new strategy, and even in the new US military manual.
Pressure on government
US commanders on the ground are already getting much more involved than before in issues like sorting out water and electricity supplies.
They have pumped money into local economies by employing tens of thousands of young Sunni men as local auxiliaries - now re-named "Sons of Iraq" after several unhappier titles such as "Concerned Local Citizens" - to act as the eyes and ears of the US and Iraqi troops in the struggle against the militants.
They are also trying to encourage the Baghdad government to be more proactive in providing services and job-creation schemes in areas where the insurgents have been driven out.
In his talks with Iraqi leaders, Mr Gates also again urged them to try to speed up efforts to pass long-delayed, key pieces of legislation aimed at achieving national reconciliation and a sense of nationhood.
Providing a breathing-space for the Iraqi politicians to do that was one of the rationales behind the surge. But the bickering Iraqi factions in parliament have passed very few of the pending new laws.
With President George W Bush saying he will back any recommendations that ensure "success", US military and diplomatic leaders clearly do not want to risk failure by committing to a full withdrawal scenario after the surge is over.